TAMPA — Midmorning on Wednesday, the main exhibit hall for the Tampa Bay Boat Show is about half-full. Forklifts maneuver slick, large boats into the warehouse-like space while early vendors unload fishing gear and accessories nearby. More than 100 vendors are expected to pack out the venue before Friday's opening.
After weathering choppy waters for several post-recession years, the recreational boating industry is finally bouncing back. Local boating companies are optimistic about the coming summer season, and many are already reporting an uptick in sales.
"They're not at historical highs, but post-recession boating is doing quite well," said Chuck Cashman, chief revenue officer for Clearwater-based MarineMax, the largest recreational boat retailer in the country.
MarineMax, like others in its trade, has been buffeted by one economic obstacle upon another over the past decade. The 2008 recession forced consumers' budgets to tighten, driving down leisure vessel sales. Then in 2010 came the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Later, a spike in gas prices provided a further disincentive for boaters.
But in recent years, the boating industry has drifted into calmer waters.
MarineMax reported $245 million in revenue for the first three months of 2017, up 22.8 percent from the same period last year. Profit for January through March increased from $49 million in 2016 to $61.1 million this year. MarineMax posted just over $940 million in revenue for all of 2016, up 20 percent from 2015.
Cashman attributes higher sales to consumers with more disposable income who are placing a premium on experiences over possessions.
"You don't need a boat; you need time with your family," which boating offers, he said.
Other companies, like the Tom George Yacht Group, are faring similarly.
Dusty Smieja, new boat sales manager at Tom George, said the last three years brought double-digit growth in the number of boats sold. Business is so good, he said, that the company is opening another location on US 19.
Smieja was especially hopeful for the show's turnout and sales.
"This is a peak time of season," he said. "We're hoping to (sell) four to five boats."
The Tampa Bay Boat Show officially opens Friday at 10 a.m. and runs until Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Admission is free.